Lest We Forget

November 10, 2014

In honour of Remembrance Day, and those who have sacrificed their lives, we’ve compiled a list of music composed for this day. We’ve chosen pieces that directly relate to WWI and WWII to get a sense of what people may have felt during those years.

Britten’s War Requiem sets poetry by war poet, Wilfred Owen, alongside traditional Latin Requiem mass texts. The piece was scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). Completed in 1962, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. The original Cathedral was destroyed in WWII.

Fauré’s Elegy captures a soulful range of emotion, from anger and sorrow to fleeting moments of happiness. These emotions can be heard through the cello’s melodies. The Elegy was one of the last works in which the composer allowed himself “such a direct expression of pathos”. In this performance, the piece is played on the piano and the cello for which it was originally written.

The name ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (grant us peace) is a concept for its creation: a plea for peace during the threat of impending war. The piece was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1936. Its texts were taken from the Mass, three poems by Walt Whitman, a political speech, and sections of the Bible.

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed Symphony No. 6 in 1946-47, and completed the piece after WWII. The Symphony’s sounds of dissonance and violence reflected the distress of war. Thus it was inevitable that Williams’ post-war audience would associate the composition to the war that had just passed.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, written in 1942–45, was a piece commissioned by the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York. The composer was known to rarely acknowledge external inspirations for his music. Despite that fact, Stravinsky did refer to the composition as his ‘war symphony’, claiming it to be a direct response to events of the WWII in Europe and Asia.

Russian Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was living in Leningrad (formerly and again now St. Petersburg) when the German army besieged it during World War II. He began composing a symphony in 1939 and finished it in December 1941, dedicating it to the city of Leningrad. His Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus It was an immediate success, and was played in the Soviet Union, Western Europe and North America.

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote a powerful, prize-winning work in 1960 titled, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima“. This music, giving an impression that is solemn and even catastrophic, has turned up in two movies: The Shining, and Children of Men. While more recently returning to mostly tonal composition, this early music from Penderecki uses unusual effects and microtonality from the 52 musicians who play the work.

We leave you with this beautiful piece by Butterworth. Written in 1913, The Banks of Green Willow scored for a small orchestra, was described by the composer as ‘idyll’. Butterworth was also a Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. He was unfortunately killed at the age of 31 during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Photo: flickr.com/jabest72